January 18, 2013 by Devon Harman
Discover magazine has listed the digital fossil research led by Drexel University’s Kenneth Lacovara and James Tangorra as one of the top 100 science stories of 2012 in its 2013 January-February issue. The research, which was ranked 76th by the magazine, seeks to simplify the process of studying fossils by digitizing bones.
Digital fossil research has the ability to change the speed at which paleontology is executed and will yield a more accurate understanding than ever before. Dinosaurs were the largest creatures to walk on Earth; their bones were immense and strong, but at a great weight reduction they had to be very energy efficient. This research aims to understand the efficiency of the animals, which can in turn contribute to the understanding of other structures presently extant on Earth.
Led by Lacovara, a professor of biodiversity, earth and environmental science, dinosaur bones are scanned by a laser to transfer the most accurate representation into a computer. These are then configured into a three-dimensional point-cloud and printed with a 3-D printer at a scale one-tenth the size of the actual bone. Once printed, bones can be configured and reconfigured to test energy efficiency of the animals and create more accurate models. The method also allows for the reconstruction of missing bones.
“You never have a huge dinosaur skeleton that is complete. [But with this technology] we can make complete and biologically accurate reconstructions,” Lacovara said.
This method has the potential to revolutionize the study of paleontology. For 150 years the study of fossils has changed little. Museum displays are typically casts of colossal bones made out of molds using burlap and plaster. Creating the mold takes a toll on the bones, and each mold can only produce a few casts before deteriorating.
Additionally, with only one skeleton, either the bones or the scientists must travel back and forth for more than one person to study them. With laser scanning and 3-D printing, however, bones are preserved indefinitely. Through the Internet, files can be shared between paleontologists with the most accurate possible representation of the animals.
Tangorra, the leading engineer of the project and a mechanical engineering professor, regarded Lacovara’s idea to scan the bones as “genius.”
“You’ve got a 500-pound fossil and you can’t send it to anyone, so no one else can use it. As long as he scans it in, it builds a nice point cloud that we are able to use and share. It makes paleontology very democratic,” Tangorra said.
Tangorra and student David McDevitt are using a shape memory alloy to replicate muscle that cannot be fossilized. Creating models limb by limb, they are then able to configure and reconfigure different scenarios for the muscle and predict that the most efficient model was likely the most accurate configuration of the dinosaur’s anatomy.
McDevitt, a third year mechanical engineering student with a minor in biology, has been on the forefront of the project. McDevitt serves as a liaison between the paleontology and engineering departments and explained that heavy machinery and manpower are required in order to configure bones. However, with 3-D prints of the bones, “we are going to be able to get a whole lot of information about how the animal was able to move, how far it could probably move, in what method it would be able to move — information we never had before,” McDevitt said.
“The greatest contribution of paleontology is that it provides perspective on the world. If we really want to understand the planet before humans, we want to look back past archaeological record. If we want to understand how bodies evolve, we want to look at the animals that pushed the envelope and got as big as you can get,” Lacovara explained.
Lacovara and Tangorra agree that that the study of paleontology can have drastic effects on how we understand the present world.
“When we understand nature’s solutions to problems, then we have a different palette to draw from to solve problems from an engineering perspective,” Tangorra said.
McDevitt claimed he was “blown away” by the feature of the research in Discover magazine and said that the only way technology could ever make a difference is if it could be shared, which is why this research is so groundbreaking. Lacovara conceded and noted that while research is done for the love of exploration, the importance of the feature in the magazine is that it extends beyond the reach of his classroom and teaches millions about the workings of Earth.
Lacovara, Tangorra and McDevitt will continue their research in hopes of adding locomotive properties to the models in the future. Drexel is one of the few institutions where undergraduates can pursue paleontology through the Biodiversity and Environmental Studies Program.